Getting a ‘thanks, kid’ after delivering the historic memento

Tom House: The retriever of history
Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron is embraced by his mother, Estella, as his father Herbert, left, nearly loses his hat and Braves pitcher Tommy House holds the ball that Aaron hit to break Babe Ruth's record, April 8, 1974, in Atlanta.  (AP Photo)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron is embraced by his mother, Estella, as his father Herbert, left, nearly loses his hat and Braves pitcher Tommy House holds the ball that Aaron hit to break Babe Ruth's record, April 8, 1974, in Atlanta. (AP Photo)

When Braves reliever Tom House entered the clubhouse April 8, 1974 – the day he would catch Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run – he was surprised by the first person he saw: singer Sammy Davis Jr.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s not very tall,’” House said of the 5-foot-5 Davis. “I’m a short guy (5-foot-11), but I felt like I was a giant.”

Davis, a friend of Aaron’s, was going around the clubhouse telling relievers, ‘If you catch the ball, I’ll give you $25,000 for it.’ Davis wanted to have it for his show before giving the ball to the Hall of Fame.

“That was around twice what I was making,” House said. “I mean, basically the minimum was $12,500. So you can do the math.”

House wound up snagging the ball in the bullpen when Aaron homered off Al Downing in the fourth inning. He immediately ran onto the field and gave it to Aaron. House said he received letters and even money from fans expressing gratitude that he didn’t try to leverage the ball.

House, 76, pitched eight years (1971-78). He’s had immense post-career success as a coach of throwing mechanics (among things), working with legendary figures such as Nolan Ryan, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But he’s best known as the man who caught Aaron’s home run in the bullpen.

“The good news is that’s the highlight of my major league career,” House said. The bad news is that’s the highlight of my major league career.”

The memory of that day in House’s words:

“We had settled ahead of time, I think it’s common knowledge that the bullpen guys all had their territories mapped out behind the left-field fence, and we went through a normal, warmup pregame, early hitting in the field. The only difference was there was a lot more noise because the fans, the stands were full, and there was a lot more media activity and star power floating around the clubhouse. That was the setup.

“So I think it was 3-1 fastball away. ‘Crack! Here it comes.’ I look up and you know, everybody says, ‘great catch’ and all that. All I know is if I would have stood still, it would have hit right in the forehead. The only distraction was really a fishnet popping right in front of me, some Georgia Tech engineer had a fishnet extension. And as I was starting my run toward home plate, Bill Buckner was playing left field for the Dodgers that day, and if you look at the film, he climbed the fence and he was late. If he could’ve got there on time, he could’ve caught it. He’s screaming at me, ‘Give it to me, give it to me.’ I’m on my way. The next thing I remember is filtering through the crowd at home. It was crazy at home plate. When I finally did get through and hold the ball up to him, he and his mother were hugging. It was one of those lifesaver moments. They both had tears in their eyes. I got his attention. He took the ball and said, ‘Thanks, kid.’ And I kind of got pushed away in the crowd. It took him a while to get his mother peeled off, she was hanging on tight.”

House said it will “forever be with me.” What that means to him:

“The people I got to associate with because of my relationship with Henry – I was a low-end guy. You know, 25-man roster, I was always 23, 24, 25. To be involved with Henry, in his bubble, was awesome. If you look at my career, it was marginal, marginal, marginal. In 1974, I was really, really good (1.93 ERA in 56 appearances). I put up some great numbers, that was really my only really good year in the big leagues. I’m convinced that part of it was the comfort zone and the warm fuzzies I felt being involved with Henry Aaron. Nobody could ever take that away from me.”

House remembers when Aaron stopped riding the team bus and had to use different entrances because of threats and hate mail as he chased the record in 1973. He also remembers being amazed by Aaron’s consistency and calmness through it all. He even felt Aaron’s on-field greatness was quiet at times: “When you play with Henry, you didn’t realize how productive he was until the game was over.”

As for the person and teammate, House speaks glowing of how Aaron treated others. When Aaron had a partnership with Magnavox, he even asked them to give House an entertainment system. Aaron was there when it was delivered. House, at the time, was sleeping on a blow-up mattress and that entertainment system was the only “furniture” they had in the apartment.

“I was almost an afterthought on the roster,” House said. “But if I could impart one thing, (Aaron) treated guys like me just like Eddie Mathews and guys he was in the Hall of Fame with. That’s unusual in any occupation, let alone baseball. … The fact that he reached out and connected with me, just like you do with superstars in this atmosphere, was special. That’s why he’ll always have a place in my heart.”

The Braves are honoring the 50th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run Monday against the Mets at Truist Park.